with quotation marks

“Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.”

~the OWL at Purdue

When you quote a whole sentence or more, you are stepping aside to let the person you are quoting stand at the podium, and the comma signals that. On the other hand, when you only quote a few words and insert them into your own sentence, it’s more like putting finger quotes in the air rather than moving over, so you don’t need a comma.

Professional Examples

  • Or, as Marianne Moore put it, “The world’s an orphan’s home.”

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • When mocked by the owner of the kitchen and pressed to say what it is that we have to cry about, she tosses back her head of flaming red hair and says, “The winds of solitude roaring at the edge of infinity.”

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • In the final postcard he sent to Wayne Westerberg, McCandless had written, “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.”

~from John Krakauer’s Into the Wild

  • Wally, the director, said, “For the next few months, we’re all a family,” and insisted on a family party so everyone could meet their cousins.

~from Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife

  • “This is a firm,” said Mario Savio at Berkeley during the Free Speech protests of the Sixties, “and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors . . . then . . . the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material. But we’re a bunch of raw material that don’t mean . . . to be made into any product.”

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • And more than that, he worries that the soccer enthusiasts want the U.S. to “get with the rest of the world’s program.”

    ~from Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World:
    An Unlikely Theory of Globalization

  • “Be a good citizen” is the message that textbooks extract from the past.

~from James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

  • At the time, I dismissed this as a scare story, but I have since come across ads for devices like the Tech-7 “incredible coin-sized camera” designed to “get a visual record of your babysitter’s actions” and “watch employees to prevent theft.”

    ~from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Maid to Order

  • Kroc was an inspiring, paternalistic figure who looked for people with “common sense,” “guts and staying power,” and “a love of hard work.”

~from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation

  • I have always liked the phrase “nursing a grudge,” because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

How Commas Work with Quotations

“Whole-sentence quote,” tag.

Independent clause that includes a “partial-sentence quote.”

A comma with a “tag” (a line such as “he says” describing who is speaking) signals to the reader that you are turning part of the sentence over to a different speaker, letting that person say an entire sentence within yours. On the other hand, if you’re only quoting a piece of a sentence, you work it into the structure of your sentence and use punctuation around the quote only as necessary for the sentence structure.

Use a capital letter for the beginning of a whole sentence quote, even if that word wasn’t capitalized in the original quote. On the other hand, a partial sentence quote should not start with a capital letter (unless the first word is a proper noun), even if the first word was capitalized in the original wording.

Notice that the tag can be dropped into several places, sort of like an interruption. Choose which place works best with the quote:

Tag, “Whole-sentence quote.”

“Whole-sentence,” tag, “quote.”

“Whole-sentence quote,” tag. “Second whole-sentence quote.”

Also notice how in the middle you would use a comma on both sides of the tag if the sentence is unfinished but use a period after the tag if the quote starts a new sentence after the tag.

Commas always come inside the closing quotation mark — in America, at least. When you see a comma on the outside, it’s either a typo or a British publication.

Self Check

Look at the quote by itself. If it can stand alone as a sentence, then check to be sure you have a comma separating it from the rest of the sentence outside the quote and be sure the quote starts with a capital letter. If the quote can’t stand alone, check to make sure that the rest of the sentence flows into it (no comma or capital letter).

Also, check to be sure that the tag leads directly into the quote with a word like “said.” If not, you might need a colon instead (see the quotation marks page).


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